Robotham - Channel Surfing
The writer discovers television again--for the first time
By Tom Robotham
Like most American children of the Baby Boom generation, I watched a lot of television while I was growing up. Indeed, I can't remember a day without it.
As a young child, I couldn't bear to miss Roy Rogers and Sky King on Saturday mornings, Bonanza and Ed Sullivan on Sunday nights and Gunsmoke on Mondays.
Throughout the week, I also enjoyed a host of sitcoms: The Dick Van Dyke show, Leave it to Beaver, Donna Reed, Andy Griffith and many more. Thanks to the magic of TV, I discovered a wide range of old films as well as the classic comedies of W.C. Fields and The Marx Brothers, great Westerns like High Noon and Shane, the horror flicks of Alfred Hitchcock and The Wizard of Oz, which generally aired only once a year. Meanwhile, I was also subjected to the news. I had no interest in it as a child, and even as a teenager, it was of marginal importance to me. But there was no escaping it. Each night after work, my father would watch Walter Cronkite. In spite of my indifference, all of the iconic images of the 60s and 70s were burned into my brain, thanks to TV: the Apollo moon landing; footage from Woodstock; the Kennedy assassination and, of course, the nightly scenes of carnage in Vietnam.
In short, television shaped my world view,my values, my desires, my fears and my dreams. And it remained an integral part of my life throughout my 20s, 30s and 40s.
Four years ago, however, after my wife and I separated and I moved into a one-bedroom apartment, TV virtually vanished from my life. I figured I could save money by passing on cable service and perhaps use my time more productively in the process.
Dont you miss it? my mother asked a few months later. You used to watch TV all the time.
Not really, I responded. And that was the truth. I wasnt spending much time at home, anyway. And when I was at home alone, I managed to entertain myself with books and music. As for the news, I now relied more on NPR and the internet. It seemed to work just fine.
But suddenly, over the recent holidays, I had a change of heart. Somewhat impulsively, I decided to buy myself an early Christmas present, a new TV and basic cable service.
SO HOW HAS IT WORKED OUT? Well, let me tell you first of all that having a TV back in your life after a four-year hiatus is a strange sensation. For the first week or so, it felt like a remarkable novelty. Here I was, a 55-year-old man who'd watched TV almost daily for half a century, and I felt like a traveler from an earlier century. Wow, I kept thinking to myself, you just push a few buttons and you have all these people right in your living room, talking and laughing, fighting, making love, and, of course, trying to sell you everything from cars to Viagra.
Very quickly, I also began to see the absurdity of television with fresh eyes. Let me give you a few examples. As I write these words, on a Thursday afternoon, I'm channel surfing. On channel 2 are two young women arguing in front of Judge Gloria Allred (a Judge Judy imitator, apparently).
One of them, it seems, elbowed the other in the mouth in an effort to catch a wedding bouquet, and the injured victim is suing. On another channel, I learn that if I have bladder cancer, I might be able to sue for damages; I'm told to call an 800 number immediately. On MTV is reality show Teen Mom 2. A young woman who appears to be about 16 is arguing with her father because hes just discovered on Facebook that shes gotten back together with her baby daddy. A little additional channel surfing brings me face to face with three or four soap operas, all of which are indistinguishable from one another, more real-life courtroom dramas, a host of shopping channels, countless commercials and an episode of what surely is one of the sickest programs ever producedA Thousand Ways to Die: dramatizations of real-life deaths under bizarre circumstances, with snarky narration. (One installment about a sorority girl, who died in a sauna during a hazing ritual, essentially conveyed the message that she was a bitch and deserved her fate.)
So its back to CNN. The channel is a welcome sanctuary of sanity and seriousness in contrast to the aforementioned grotesqueries.
But its an odd and somewhat disturbing presentation in its own rightthe consummate reflection of a culture afflicted by collective Attention Deficit Disorder. A split screen in the middle, with the host talking to a senator; a graphic in the lower left hand corner alerting viewers to the topic; another graphic in the upper left, with the name of the show; a stock ticker to the right of that, and down at the bottom, a series of headlines scrolling across the screen. I learn from this that Howard Stern will host Americas Got Talent, that Kim Kardashian just spent $65,000 on three bracelets and that a cable TV guy found a 500-pound bear asleep in the basement of a house that he was servicing. Ohand the war in Iraq is officially over.
Given my cynical take on all this, you might be concluding that I regret my decision to bring television back into my life. But I dont, actually.
Over the last month or so, Ive also rediscovered everything I like about TVthe brilliant satire of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, which I watch several times a week; comforting reruns of Friends and Seinfeld, westerns on Saturday mornings.
Moreover, in spite of my comments about CNN, Ive found that it is helping me keep up with more news.
What Ive rediscovered, in short, is that television is a mirror of Americaour collective intelligence, our sense of humor, our goodwill and our desire to connect with the world. Right alongside that, of course, are a host of unattractive traitsour hyper-consumerism, our delight in watching other people make fools of themselves (or worse) and our tendency toward preoccupation with the trivial. But in the end, Ive realized, I want to be in touch with all of this. After all, its the culture we live in, for better or worse.